The Tender Place of Motherhood

As an expectant mother nearly 30 years ago, I could never have anticipated what would unfold over the next three decades. Never – absolutley never. I listened carefully even to unsolicited advice. I read manuals on caring for babies. And I observed with the keen eye of a social scientist how mothers interacted with their children – nurtured them – comforted them – redirected them – developed independence in them – loved them. No matter how many resources I had available to me, I knew I could not prepare for every scenario.

The best decision I made, however, occurred during a high school volleyball game. Carrying my bag of popcorn, I settled next to a woman for whom I had great respect. Jane, with her her husband, Marv, was raising seven children of her own while running a home daycare – a daycare many of my students had attended and on which they reflected with nostalgia and love; their experiences intrigued me. I had the privilege, in fact, of having had 5 of her children in my English classes, and valued their work ethic, their reflective and compassionate and respectful dispositions, and their intense love of their family.

As Jane and I watched her daughter take the volleyball court, our conversation turned to motherhood and her philosophy of raising children. She observed that nurturing children required intense love, consistent and high expectations, and immense amounts of grace both for the children and for the parent. With a subtle smile, Jane reflected on her expectations of her children, requiring them to participate in the running of the home through chores as well as teaching them the importance of studying – not just completing homework. In the end, she said, “Heather, you can never love your children too much. It will be okay.”

Since that moment in the fall of 1992, I have had the privilege of watching two vulnerable infants unfold into independent, strong-willed, passionate, and compassionate adults. Two humans for whom I would do anything.

I have messed up a million times – yelling when I should have taken a deep breath – filling their schedules too full when I should have told them to simply rest or go outside to play – asking them to be strong when I should have held them while they cried. In those moments, especially in the most heated ones when the stubborn sides of our personalities locked horns, I have learned the art of grace – both in the asking for and in the giving. Again, despite having access to resources and excellent mentors, much of parenting occured in the moment. Always, however, my love for them was unwaivering. In fact, with time, it has only deepened.

Through every step of motherhood, I gained an important life lesson – perhaps the most important of them all. I learned to savor both the bitter and the sweet. For example, there is angst watching a child’s heart break, but knowing they will emerge stronger and more intent on the characterstics they need in a life partner. And the journey is filled with a plethora of these tender, bittersweet moments. As I watched my children drive off for the first few times in their own cars, I experienced elation at their new found independence and fear of realizing they no longer fully needed me. And I celebrated — yet wanted to hang on tighter– as my adult children began their lives after college with new jobs and the purchase of their own homes, trying to walk beside them for as long as I could, but falling farther behind as their strides widened.

Unfortunately, nothing can really prepare a parent for what unfolds. And even in that, bittersweetness resides. Every new human enters the world uniquely themselves – without a manual or even a cheat sheet. The ones in whose charge they are left must figure out what is best in the moment – often without all of the information and certainly without the required resources. In best case scenarios, deep roots develop and parent-child relationships develop and deepen over time. Nothing, however, is guaranteed.

Most recently, my journey as a mother took a path I could never have imagined as I carried my children to term. Just a few days before Christmas this past year, I sat for hours beside both of my children in a dimly lit room we had transformed into Elizabeth’s room. I watched my son – my youngest- rub his sister’s leg, whisper to her, and cry as Elizabeth succumbed to the grip of brain cancer. And while I sat in the room next to the two humans I love more than anything, I felt separate from my physcial body.

So this is what motherhood is, I remember thinking. It is the space where one can simultaneously hold the bitter moments of death and the sweetness of having loved two humans more than life itself.

While my heart aches at the loss of my daughter, it breaks even more when I think about my son experiencing death at such a young age – realizing he has lost his only sibling. And yet, even in these moments of anguish, I continue to experience thanksgiving in having rasied two children who love and respect each other – of having mothered a brave woman like Elizabeth even if it was for too short of a time.

No other life experience has fully captures the flavor of bittersweetness quite like watching my children sit together in death – one trying to hold onto his sister, and the other letting go. This specific moment offers me the intense reality that this is motherhood – parenthood – and I am doing the best I can. In the end, Jane was right. My work as a mother is important. I had nurtured these two individuals into adulthood, and even if the story isn’t written the way I had imagined it should be, it is my story. And everything is okay.

I’m joining an open community of writersover at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

The Healing Power of Water

“The fall of dripping water wears away the stone” – Lucretius

Before the global pandemic held the world hostage, I found solace in the water; swimming at the community pool early in the morning.  At the time, I found myself seeking different ways to be healthy, and my daughter, a competitive swimmer most of her childhood and adolescence, encouraged me to take up swimming.   In fact, she even accompanied me on my first toe-dip, helping me break the fear of walking into a foreign space for the first time. 

With her encouragement, and the quick results I experienced, I consistently found myself arriving as the pool opened at sunrise.  When I left the healing touch of the water, I breathed better – my day stretched out ahead of me – my mind was clear – and I was centered. 

The cool touch of the water offered me silence, delivering me as close to meditation as I had ever reached. Elizabeth would often call me when I returned from my daily swim. “Didn’t I tell you you would love the water? You can do it, Mom.”

As I swam, often playing around with different strokes I learned as a child, I would repeat the Serenity prayer – over and over.  “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference,” I would hear my mind whisper.  Eventually, the prayer paced my freestyle or backstroke:

Serenity – courage – wisdom.  Serenity – courage – wisdom.  Serenity – courage – wisdom.  Serenity – courage – wisdom.  Serenity – courage – wisdom.  Serenity – courage – wisdom.

Heading into the fall of 2019, I was physically, mentally, and emotionally the healthiest I have ever been in my life.  I dared to let myself think life could be “normal,” and that I could find balance. However, without warning, the universe, with its cruel desire for ubiquitous humility, shifted my reality with my daughter’s diagnosis of stage four brain cancer – a shocking reality after living with a different, stage-two brain tumor. And then, as if a glioblastoma was not enough, close on the heels of her diagnosis, Covid-19 froze our communities. 

When Elizabeth’s first brain tumor was discovered during her junior year in college, I began an intense health journey. I wanted to be present, available, and physically capable of caring for Elizabeth should she need me, not fully realizing that day would come too soon. The weight loss I achieved through healthy eating and exercise equaled a small woman, but the growth of my understanding of who I am was immeasurable.  My health journey at the time, however, occurred for Elizabeth – not for myself.

With the new diagnosis, I knew one did not beat stage four cancer. One must learn to live with it for as long and as fully as possible. As her health declined, and I threw myself into her care, I took less care of myself, skipping my four mile walks or workouts. Inadvertently, I also paid less attention to the quality of food on my plate. 

My daily ritual of swimming came to a screeching hault for nearly two years. I lost myself in caring for my child, and more recently, I have struggled to find my footing since Elizabeth;s December death.  As someone who quickly adjusts and lands on her feet – pushes past emotion – prides herself in resiliency, this part of my journey has paralyzed me.  I have experienced loss before, but losing my daughter shattered my heart in indescribable ways, and I have felt lost – disoriented – adrift.

In the last few weeks, I have felt Elizabeth’s gentle nudges to find my way back to myself, and I have found myself back in the water.  Her voice comes in remembered converations urging me to care for others like her – to offer them comfort and hope – to teach them to live while dying. I have heeded to her pull – to the energy of the water, and I have found myself walking into the quiet community pool anxious, and yet eager.

Serenity – courage – wisdom.  Serenity – courage – wisdom.  Serenity – courage – wisdom.  Serenity – courage – wisdom.  Serenity – courage – wisdom.  Serenity – courage – wisdom.

My grief is the heaviest stone I have ever carried with me.  I carry it in my shoulders and my hips.  I carry it in my tears.  I carry it in feelings of disconnect.  Yet, the water will help me piece my heart back together.  It will gently chip away at the weight of anguish – of sorrow.  In the water, I hear my breath.  I feel my muscles lengthen. I am present, and I hear my daughter whisper, “You can do it, Mom. You can do it.”